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How Alcohol Affects Women Differently Than Men

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Which Sex is More Affected by Alcohol?

Women tend to be more affected by alcohol than men. This is due to several factors based on sex (biological) and gender (cultural). 

Biologically, women are likely to have a higher blood alcohol content (BAC) than men after drinking. In addition, women appear to be more vulnerable than men to some of the adverse alcoholism-associated bodily damage.

Although women generally need less alcohol to feel intoxicated compared to men, females usually suffer more consequences. Severe brain and organ damage are common in women who binge drink or have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).1

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How Alcohol Affects Men and Women Differently

Alcohol affects men and women differently. The most notable reason is that men's and women’s bodies function differently, affecting how alcohol is processed.

Some of the main ways alcohol affects men and women differently include: 

Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)

Women are more likely to have a high BAC after drinking. The effects of alcohol usually come on more quickly and last longer than their male counterparts.

This is due to several biological reasons, including:

  • Women have less water in their bodies. Less water allows more alcohol to stay in the body, increasing BAC
  • Women tend to have more body fat, and alcohol can’t dissolve in fat, making alcohol more concentrated
  • Women have less alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), a liver and stomach enzyme that breaks down alcohol
  • Women’s hormone levels affect the rate of intoxication

Addiction

Historically, men have been much more likely to become alcoholics. However, alcohol consumption in women is drastically increasing. More recently, women’s alcohol consumption has been catching up to men.

One study shows that women’s alcohol consumption has been steadily catching up to men’s since the early 1900s.2 By the end of the last century, men's and women's drinking habits were almost equal. 

The reason for women’s increase in alcohol intake is likely a combination of factors, such as:

  • An increased acceptance of women drinking in society
  • The glamorization of alcohol geared toward women 
  • The desire to cope with anxiety and stress
  • Women-specific trauma and PTSD

Health Risks

Women’s health is more likely to be negatively affected by their alcohol consumption, even when they drink less alcohol. 

Breast Cancer

Drinking even small amounts of alcohol has been linked to breast cancer.3

Compared to women who don’t drink alcohol, women who have three drinks per week have a 15% higher chance of developing breast cancer. Furthermore, for every additional drink, that risk increases by 10%.4

Reasons why alcohol may increase the risk of breast cancer include:

  • Alcohol can cause increased fat storage. Excess fat can lead to cancer
  • Alcohol can increase the production of the hormone estrogen, which is associated with breast cancer
  • Alcohol increases folic acid in the body, which also increases the risk of cancer

In comparison, men’s alcohol use doesn't increase their risk of breast cancer. Breast cancer in men is rare and usually develops because of genetics.

Reproductive Health

Alcohol negatively affects both male and female fertility.

Alcohol can disrupt a woman’s regular menstrual cycle. In addition, even light drinking can decrease female fertility. 

On the same note, male sperm count and quality are also affected by alcohol use. Just 14 units of alcohol per week (about 6 pints of average-strength beer) lower testosterone and sperm quality and quantity in men.5

High consumption of alcohol and binge drinking in both men and women has also been shown to increase the risk of heart defects for babies.5 

Pregnancy Risks

Alcohol has a severe and dangerous effect on pregnancy. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy dramatically increases the risk of premature birth, miscarriage, and low birthweight.6

Additionally, drinking while pregnant can cause your baby to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Symptoms of FASD include:

  • Problems with bones, muscles, joints, and organs
  • Difficulty managing emotions and social skills
  • Trouble learning
  • Behavioral issues
  • Struggles with communication and speech
  • Inability to control impulses
  • Hyperactivity

How Does Sex Affect Alcoholism?

Alcoholism may affect women more intensely due to societal factors, such as:

  • More stigma related to substance abuse and treatment 8
  • Higher risk of sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related trauma
  • Gender inequalities and increased risk of poverty
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression9

Men are more likely to become alcoholics if their parents abused alcohol. One study showed that male children who lived with alcoholic parents started drinking at younger ages compared to the same age group of males and females with parents who didn’t have an AUD.10

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How Alcohol Abuse Treatment Differs for Women

Women may face more challenges getting the proper treatment for AUD. This can be due to many factors, including:

Stigmas

Society's expectations for women may make it more difficult for them to seek treatment. For example, women may be pressured to be caregivers and heads of households, making them feel isolated and ashamed to get help.

Motherhood

Having children may make it harder for women to attend meetings or get help for an AUD. In addition, mothers who have kids at home may not want help due to fear of the repercussions of social services.

Income

Women live in poverty more than men.11 Therefore, women may find it harder to be able to finance their recovery. If women have children, these costs can increase as child care may be necessary for them to get help. 

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Summary

  • Overall, women are more affected by alcohol than men
  • Women are more likely to get drunk off less alcohol
  • Women’s health is more likely to be negatively affected by their alcohol consumption, even when they drink less alcohol
  • Factors within sex and gender affect how men and women interact with and are affected by alcohol
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Updated on November 9, 2022

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.

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